Changes in Ancelotti’s debut: Casillas, di Maria, Arbeloa can’t crack Real Madrid XI

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Iker Casillas’s expected return to Real Madrid’s starting lineup was so highly anticipated, completely objective not-a-pro-Real-Madrid paper Marca printed a note of congratulations on Sunday morning.

“Welcome home, Iker,” the headline read, speaking with a familiarity that makes last names inappropriate. “Tonight the goalkeeper returns to the Real Madrid starting line-up …”

Hours later, Diego López — the man who became Real Madrid’s number one his January acquisition — was announced as Real Madrid’s starter for today’s match.

[MORE: Isco’s late goal gives Real Madrid win over Betis.]

“Ancelotti’s eagerness to re-establish the normal order seems to have given Iker the upper hand over Diego López – at least for the time being,” Marca wrote this morning.

Oops. More from Marca:

Now it is up to Iker to cement his grip on a first-team place, conscious that Ancelotti – who is delighted to have two-world class shotstoppers on his hands – will not be afraid to pull the trigger and switch things over if he deems it necessary.

The Italian has been at pains to avoid his decision leaking out, even claiming that he had yet to determine which goalkeeper would play. “It’s not an easy decision and it will come down to small details that are difficult to explain. They are both top professionals, are training well and did well in preseason”, he stated.

Ancelotti knows that the issue is a delicate one and wants to handle it with care. He is fully aware that last season, the controversy over the number 1 spot caused a rift in the dressing room and amongst the fans – one he is desperate to heal.

source:  After the match, March trotted out what’s sure to be the company line. Not that Casillas’s time at the Confederations Cup (and break afterward) aren’t legitimate factors, but when Gianluigi Buffon is starting the Supercoppa Italiana the same day Casillas is said to be behind in training, you have to think these excuses are only as important a you want them to be.

Again, Marca:

Ancelotti had already warned on the eve of the match that he was not certain who the first choice goalkeeper should be and he finally opted for Lopez who completed a full pre-season, while Casillas had only spent the past twenty days with the side.

Casillas versus López was only one of the curiosities from Ancelotti’s first match in charge. Some of these issues foreseeable, but now that an official game is in the book, we can start discussing some of the implications.

Free Cristiano! – Not that Cristiano Ronaldo was ever limited in what he could do under José Mourinho, but today he really seemed liberated to go wherever he thought the ball would end up. His average position made him the most left-leaning of Real’s attacking midfielders, but he was only slightly left of Isco. At full time, Ronaldo had attempted 11 shots, four finding their way on goal. 

Ángel Di María is the one to make way – There aren’t many who deny Di María’s influence, but whereas some think he’s merely a fine player, others see him as an absolute world-class talent. I tend to fall into the second group, because although the Argentine winger doesn’t put up the eye-popping goal totals, he does everything else. Unfortunately, that everything else-ness was on the bench at kickoff, with Isco starting in his place. He eventually came on the 69th minute for MesütÖzil.

Alvaro Arbeloa loses his spot, too – He’s been good enough to start at right back for Spain, but that never tempered criticism of Alvaro Arbeloa. It appears Carlo Ancelotti is the same camp as the detractors, because Daniel Carvajal, brought back to Spain this summer from Bayer Leverkusen, got the start.

source:  No sign of Kaká – A popular theory after Ancelotti’s move from Paris Saint-Germain held Kaká would get a fresh start under the man who guided at AC Milan. Perhaps that has happenned, but today, although Real Madrid spent only four minutes in the lead, Kaká was an unused sub. Özil, Isco, and Luka Modric got starts. Casemiro and Di María were called off the bench. But there was no time for Kaká.

Similar system, different tactics – You don’t want to read too much into the tactics, as they could have been tailored to Real Betis, but in a system that was similar to the one José Mourinho used before he left Real Madrid, it was interesting to see how much Los Blancos relied on their left side. Both goals were generated down that flank, as were most of the team’s chances, with all of the team’s attacking midfielders’ average positions left side of striker Karim Benzema. Perhaps that’s what a healthy Marcelo will do for you – implore you to go left. It was interesting, nonetheless.

But does/did that expose Ramos? –  Sergio Ramos was beaten badly on Real Betis’s only goal. Cedric, a 21-year-old Congolese attacker brought in from Numancia, put Ramos on his heals in a one-on-one before going right (and, right around him), setting up an easy finish for Jorge Molina. Ramos is a talented defender capable of handling those situations better.

It’s only one game, but for Real Madrid, it was a very interesting one.

Mourinho-Costa feud could mean January transfer activity for Chelsea

Diego Costa & Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
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Perhaps no man in the footballing world has been embroiled in more controversy this season than Jose Mourinho, who remains in charge of Chelsea despite a horrid start to the club’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign.

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The Portuguese mastermind has fallen out with a number of his own players and staff this season, so why not add another name to the growing list? Come on down, Diego Costa, you’re Mourinho’s next combatant.

The two reportedly got into a heated locker-room exchange following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Given Costa’s increasingly poor form all the way back to the final weeks and months of the 2014-15 season — just seven goals scored in the last 10 months — Mourinho is reportedly less and less sure the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard is the right man to lead the line for the reigning PL champions.

The details of Mourinho and Costa’s halftime spat, from the Guardian:

Mourinho, just as he did after a similar situation against Norwich on Saturday, made his frustrations clear at the forward’s lack of anticipation over an Eden Hazard pass, which would have provided the striker with a tap-in had he been on the move. Costa returned his manager’s remonstrations in kind. Oscar and John Terry tried to calm him down only to be pushed aside. The manager subsequently suggested there had been “a few kisses, a few cuddles” in the dressing room at the interval, and “no problem,” though the public show of dissent was notable.

The club’s hierarchy is reportedly considering dipping into the transfer market in January — something they’re extremely loath to do — to replace the misfiring Costa. The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Saido Berahino are the biggest currently linked with the Blues, given the lack of elite players typically available — as well as not being cup-tied in the Champions League — during the January window.

Chelsea, who currently sit 15th in the PL, return to league action on Sunday when they visit Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane (Watch live at 6:30 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.

Europa League roundup: Spurs, Liverpool advance to KO stage

FC Girondins de Bordeaux
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A roundup of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League group stage action:

Qarabag 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham traveled 2,500 miles to Baku, where they knocked off the reigning Azerbaijani champions to remain top of Group J with one game left to play. Harry Kane scored the game’s only goal (10th of the season – all competitions), a close-range finish from Christian Eriksen‘s corner kick in the 78th minute. As things stand, Spurs need just a point in their group stage finale, a home date with Monaco, to finish top of the group and grab a seeded place in the draw for the round of 32.

Liverpool 2-1 Bordeaux

Liverpool went top of Group B with a 2-1 victory over last-place Bordeaux at Anfield, meaning a win in their final group game, away to Swiss side Sion in two weeks’ time, will clinch a seeded place in the draw for the knockout stage. Liverpool went down a goal just after the half-hour mark, but James Milner and Christian Benteke brought the Reds back with a goal each either side of halftime.

FC Krasnodar 1-0 Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund missed their chance to finish top of Group C when they lost 1-0 away to Russian side Krasnodar. Pavel Mamaev put the hosts ahead from the penalty spot in the 2nd minute, and they held on for 88 minutes to move level on points (10) with the German giants. With one game left to play, Krasnodar have the inside track on the top spot through the fourth tiebreaker, away goals scored between the two teams.

Elsewhere in Europa League action

Augsburg 2-3 Athletic Bilbao
Villarreal 1-0 Rapid Wien
Basel 2-2 Fiorentina
Lazio 3-1 Dnipro
Club Brugge 0-1 Napoli
Rosenborg 1-1 Saint-Etienne
Monaco 0-2 Anderlecht
Marseille 2-1 Groningen
Schalke 1-0 APOEL Nicosia
Lokomotiv Moscow 2-4 Porto
Braga 2-1 Liberec
Molde 0-2 Fenerbahce
Celtic 1-2 Ajax
Besiktas 2-0 Skenderbeu
Rubin Kazan 2-0 Sion
Dinamo Minsk 1-0 Viktoria Plzen
AZ Alkmaar 1-2 Partizan Belgrade
Belenenses 0-0 Lech Poznan
Sparta Prague 1-0 Astoris Tripolis
Legia Warsaw 1-0 Midtjylland
PAOK Thessaloniki 0-0 FK Qabala